Jack London State Historic Park
By Sandy Sims
(This article was published in the September, 2013 issue of Image magazine, a monthly, print magazine of Silicon Valley Community Newspapers.)
Before he died at age 40, Jack London wrote 23 novels (among them the beloved White Fang and Call of the Wild), two memoirs (one about his alcoholism), 22 short story collections, 23 essays, three plays, and some 45 poems. Among his life experiences, he’d been a war correspondent during the Russo-Japanese War; he’d mined for Gold in the Klondike; gone seal hunting; ridden the rails; surfed in Waikiki before it was even known in California. And he was a social activist, fighting for child labor laws and for the reduced workweek. Surprisingly, during the last years of his life, London wrote only to support his farm because farming had become his passion.
One of America’s most prolific and successful writers, London died in 1916. He was living on a 1,400-acre farm he called Beauty Ranch in the tiny town of Glen Ellen in Sonoma County.
Today, Beauty Ranch is a California state historic park, open to the public. There visitors stroll through the cottage where London and his second wife Charmian lived, the office where he wrote, the closed-porch-bedroom where he died, his grave, the ruins of Wolf House (the dream home that burned down one week before he and Charmian planned to move in). There’s also the House of Happy Walls (now a museum) where Charmian lived until 1945 (She later died in 1955 in the old cottage); and there’s the Pig Palace where London’s hogs enjoyed the ultimate in living quarters; and the stable where he kept his massively large English Shire horses. And on summer evenings, the ruins of an old winery (that existed there before London’s time) bursts with Broadway Tunes.
Closing the Park?
Late in 2011, because of California’s financial crisis, Jack London State Historic Park was one of 70 state parks slated to close. At that time—after years of little-to-no state funding—the park had lost its luster and trails were over grown.
But the people of Sonoma County would not let Beauty Ranch close. The Valley of the Moon Natural History Association—which had in past years restored London’s cottage and created fundraising events to help support the place—took over operation of the park in May of 2012.
Ironically, Beauty Ranch is now getting more attention and more visitors than ever. Some 350 volunteers have cleaned 20 miles of trails and buildings and weekend tours. On shelves of the
House of Happy Walls museum, sit First editions of London’s books and artifacts from the couple’s travels. Docents even play Charmian’s 1901 Steinway piano in the museum on weekends.
And in what seems now like kismet, the Transcendence Theatre Company, a talented group of young performers from Broadway, television and movies, asked to make the ruins of the old winery at Beauty Ranch a permanent home for their Broadway Under the Stars concerts. (They like to say that the shooting star everyone saw during their first concert last year was Jack London giving his approval.)
Creating Beauty Ranch:
Over time, London bought 1,400 acres of wilderness land on the slopes of Sonoma Mountain, including ancient redwoods where a 2,000-year-old redwood called the “Grandmother Tree” stands, and 100-year-old fruit orchards still produce.
On his farm, London practiced something between sustainable and organic farming long before the words were even coined. He wanted his farm to be a model for other farmers, using practices he learned in his travels to Asia.
“I am rebuilding worn-out hillside lands that were worked out and destroyed by our wasteful California pioneer farmers. I believe the soil is our one indestructible asset, and by green manures, nitrogen-gathering cover crops, animal manure, rotation of crops, proper tillage and draining, I am getting results which the Chinese have demonstrated for forty centuries.” Jack London 1915
He terraced his land, so it would retain water. His stone silos were the first of their kind in California. He composted his animals’ manure for fertilizer. He raised the tastiest pigs and the biggest workhorses in the world, and treated them like royalty.
As one docent said, “Jack London was a human dynamo.” After doctors told London he would only live a few more years and should slow down, he sped up his work on the farm and on his writing.
London died of kidney failure, not from his alcoholism but because he contracted yaws in the Solomon Islands. When sores broke out on his body, doctors told him to rub mercury in them. The mercury built up in his kidneys and eventually killed him. Four doctors and Charmian stood by his bedside as the end, helpless to save him.
London lived well but on the edge financially—using advances for his books. But when he died, he left a good number of unpublished works that Charmian was able to publish and live off for the rest of her life.
Jack and Charmian’s ashes are buried near the House of Happy Walls on a small knoll overlooking the Valley of the Moon.
Fun note: As a youngster, Jack London rode the train from Oakland to Santa Clara to visit friends, getting off at the small flag station that sits across from Bellarmine College Prep in Santa Clara, California. This station shows up in the first chapter of London’s novel The Call of the Wild.